There were a lot of highlights on our first camping trip: Great scenery, challenging hikes, a tent that filled with bugs after a tent flap was left open, the Wes Craven-worthy screaming in the dead of night when a spider (allegedly) crawled across someone’s arm. My personal favorite, however, was the pie. I wasn’t sure how good I would be at camping or at cooking over a fire. But when I served up a variation on our favorite cobbler, fireside, at the end of a long day of hiking, the genuine delight I got in return was enough to keep me coming back.
Cooking well while camping has become a puzzle I love to solve. It involves making a careful plan and sticking to it, working around three key principles: Travel light, allow for variable cooking conditions and create as little garbage as possible. It’s an endeavor that illustrates how simple things can be — and how much ingenuity goes into keeping them that way. I try to avoid expensive, individually packaged camping food and tons of special gear, while still making real, satisfying, hopefully delicious food that the family and I want to eat. It’s haiku-form cooking: restrictive but, when you nail it, amazing.
Whether you’re a first-time camper or a veteran, I suggest you try it. And since knowledge of the outdoor life should be open-source, I’m offering up 10 hints and fixes from our camp kitchen to yours.
1. Try backpacking-lite. We hike to our campsite, which lets us get closer to the wilderness (try a picture-perfect spot by a sparkling, clear river), but our car is only a 2-mile hike away. It’s pretty easy to hike out once during the week to replenish supplies from a cooler stashed in the car, or get trash to the dumpsters.
2. Plan for leftovers. Spinach from your first-night salad becomes a garnish on the next day’s trail sandwiches, and the last wilted leaves get thrown into a pot of beans or an omelette on day three or four. Eat everything — food garbage gets gross in a hurry and attracts animals.
3. Use zip-close bags. I know, they’re plastic, which isn’t ideal. Commit to washing and reusing them to minimize waste, then use them to freeze water and precooked food at home, to hold mixes of dry ingredients for things like pancakes or cobbler batter and as mixing containers. (Just add water, squish and dump.)
4. Follow a multiuse mantra. If you’re buying gear, focus on finding things that serve more than one purpose. (New favorite: bowls by Fozzils, which unsnap flat for packing and can be used as a cutting surface.) Look for versatility from old favorites too: Cooking pots are also mixing bowls, a skillet can be used as a lid, a pot lid can be a serving plate.
5. Try a cooking pot hack. I love cast-iron pots, but I can’t commit to hiking one into a campsite or dumping one of my favorite pots into the coals to bake campsite pizza or bread. Instead, grab a lightweight pot with a lid from the thrift store. (The one I used for this story cost me $3.) If possible, unscrew the handles and ditch them. Buy an inexpensive clamp-on pot lifter instead. Use the pot for cooking on a camp stove or fire grate, and transform it into an oven by nestling it into the coals, inverting the lid and lining it with aluminum foil, then placing coals on top. If it’s too far gone after roughing it, you can simply recycle it.
6. Reverse-engineer your best recipes. Serving simple favorites while camping gets you four-star cred — the atmosphere and the post-hiking hunger do the rest. Plus, recipes that are already in your comfort zone are less likely to go awry under camping conditions. (An open fire is not the same as a gas burner.) Look for ways to make your go-to recipes camp-friendly: Substitute dry milk to make your pancake recipe into a shelf-stable mix. (Just add water and eggs on-site.) Or cook up a batch of your best beef bourguignon at home, then freeze it. By the second night, it should be a thawed, ready-made feast. (Since you’ll only need to heat it, not cook it, you’ll have time to bake fresh bread to go alongside — which you’ll encourage campers to use to wipe up the last drop of stew, saving some cleanup.)
7. Freeze everything. Frozen zip-close bags of water and foods like stew or bread dough you whipped up at home will act like ice packs in the cooler, keeping other foods cold. This means all of your cooler space is devoted to stuff you plan to eat or drink, not ice packs. If there’s a short hike to your campsite, bring cold-storage bags along, and transfer food to them for that leg of the journey.
8. Make breakfast burritos. Cook up the eggs, and custom-fill the burritos at home to each camper’s liking. Then wrap them tightly in aluminum foil and label. Drop them in zip-close bags and freeze. They should be thawed by the second day at camp, at which time you can tuck them into the coals in their foil or warm them in a skillet — and serve up a quick, hearty pre-hiking breakfast that will make you the official camp hero.
9. Hit the farmers market. Plan to score last-minute items at a store or market right before you go into the woods — search for the nearest one before you go. If a farmers market is available, it’s worth the trip, since your produce and eggs will be fresher than in the supermarket, buying you more shelf life in camp. Tip: Research shelf life on a website like stilltasty.com before you go. Foods like cheese last much longer without refrigeration than you might think.
10. Turn an Ikea bag into a sink. Those big, blue monstrosities that are hanging around the house? They’re light, super sturdy and fold flat. And at camp, they can make one of the most difficult parts of cooking — the cleanup — easier. They’ll hold all the dirty dishes and make it easy to tote any dirty water away from camp for dumping. (Otherwise, you risk attracting animals.) One other camping-only cleanup strategy: Convince kids to lick their bowls or plates before you wash them. It helps to serve dessert.
FIND OUT MORE
Camping — and camp cooking — is not only a time-honored tradition (James Beard wrote one of his earliest cookbooks about campfire cooking), it’s trending. If you’re looking for more camp cooking info and inspiration, you’re in luck. At least three new cookbooks on the subject debuted this season: “The Camp & Cabin Cookbook” by Laura Bashar, “The Campout Cookbook” by Marnie Hanel and Jen Stevenson; and “Feast by Firelight” by Emma Frisch. Each has a set of solid tips, tempting recipes and fun photos. But my favorite is Frisch’s take, because she includes a set of menus based on whether you’ll be backpacking, car camping or something in between. Since the trip will dictate the food, this is a key detail, one often overlooked in books that are aimed at car-campers only.
Prep: 15 minutes
Cook: 30-45 minutes
Makes: 8 servings
This is a camping-friendly adaptation of one of the most delightfully foolproof recipes I know. And it’s multiuse, too: Who says a dessert cobbler can’t magically become a campsite breakfast pie the next morning?
1 cup flour
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup powdered milk
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup water
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter
2 cups fresh fruit
A pot (8- or 9-inch) that you don’t mind getting blackened in the coals, with a lid that can hold hot coals if inverted. (You can sub a skillet for the lid if it will fit on top of the pot securely.) Line the lid or the skillet with aluminum foil to protect it from coals.
A universal, clamp-on pot handle or lifter, or a set of long tongs that is strong enough to lift the pot out of the coals.
A barbecue-style long oven mitt
At home: Mix all dry ingredients in a large zip-close bag. Pack it with your dry food supplies for camping. Store butter in a small zip-close bag, and store with cold food supplies.
At the campsite: Add water to bag containing dry ingredients. Squish bag gently to mix. (This is a good job for a responsible kid.) Place butter in pot over campfire, allowing pot to heat up and butter to melt. Pour batter into melted butter, then drop fresh fruit on top of batter. Place a small mound of hot coals (about the size of 6-8 charcoal briquettes) into the inverted lid or the skillet, and place on top of pot. Nestle pot into very hot coals at the edge of the fire — coals should be snuggled up against the sides of the pot. Make sure you have a pot handle and oven mitt at the ready — cooking with fire may require some shifting and adjusting of the pot to keep the heat even. Plan to lift the lid to check the pie from time to time. Bake until batter is done and the top of the pie is a golden, crusty brown. Visual cues to doneness are more important than cooking time. Cooking time can vary greatly, but will likely be 30 to 45 minutes.
In the oven: Not going camping? To adapt this recipe for home, bake in a cast-iron skillet at 400 degrees.
Nutrition information serving: 287 calories, 12 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 31 mg cholesterol, 43 g carbohydrates, 29 g sugar, 4 g protein, 411 mg sodium, 2 g fiber
SALAMI AND SNAP PEA PAELLA
Prep: 15 minutes
Cook: 40 minutes
Makes: 4 servings
We spotted this recipe in “Feast by Firelight” (Ten Speed Press, $22) by Emma Frisch and love the idea of varying the campsite stew or chili with a hearty paella. We also love salami, which is a durable camping multitasker that can serve as on-the-trail lunches, campsite snacks and a stand-in for breakfast bacon, and can add smoky flavor to dishes like this one.
3 tablespoons olive oil
8 ounces sugar snap peas, cut on a diagonal into ¼-inch slices
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 medium yellow onion, finely diced
1 large garlic clove, minced
1 cup 1/4-inch-cubed salami
1 cup arborio rice
1/3 cup dried wild mushroom pieces, optional
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 pinch saffron, optional
1 1/2 cups chicken broth or vegetable broth (To save weight and space, we recommend substituting bullion or demiglace, which can be mixed with water.)
1 can (14.5 ounces) crushed tomatoes (We recommend Pomi tomatoes in a paper package, or fresh tomatoes, chopped or crushed.)
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
1/2 cup sliced or pitted whole green olives, optional
10 frozen, large shrimp, peeled, deveined with tail on
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1. Fire the grill or campfire to medium-high heat and position the grill grate 4 inches above the coals.
2. In a 12-inch cast-iron skillet or deep, lidded saucepan over medium heat, warm 1 tablespoon of the olive oil (direct heat if cooking over a campfire). Add the peas and ¼ teaspoon of the salt, toss the peas to coat with oil, and cook, stirring often, until browned and tender, 5 to 6 minutes. Once cooked, transfer the peas to a bowl and set aside.
3. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil and the onion to the pan, toss to coat, and sauté until translucent and soft, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, salami, rice, mushrooms (if using) and remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil, and stir until the rice is coated with oil. Add the paprika, turmeric, saffron (if using), chicken broth, tomatoes and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt to the pan, and mix together until combined. Using the back of a stirring spoon, spread the rice mixture into an even layer in the pan.
4. Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer, cover and cook until the rice has absorbed all the liquid, about 25 minutes. (Do not stir! That will release the starch in the rice and create a gooier consistency. You can peek quickly to check for doneness.) After 25 minutes, remove the lid.
5. Stir in the cooked snap peas, lemon zest and olives (if using). One by one, add the shrimp, pushing them so that they’re buried in the rice. Cover the pan and cook until the shrimp are pink and cooked, about 5 minutes. Remove the paella from the heat (take extra caution to protect your hands with welding gloves as the pan will be scorching hot), and let stand, covered, for 10 minutes to cool. Sprinkle the parsley and Parmesan over top.
6. Serve warm directly from the pan. (Be sure to warn your fellow campers that the pan is hot!) Store leftovers in an airtight container, chilled, for up to 3 days.
Nutrition information serving: 531 calories, 27 g fat, 9 g saturated fat, 74 mg cholesterol, 45 g carbohydrates, 4 g sugar, 25 g protein, 1,446 mg sodium, 2 g fiber